A long time ago, in a branch of PC World far, far away, people had to pay a ridiculous premium if they wanted a small laptop. Then Asus detonated a sizeable explosive under the market with its Eee PC, and the netbook bandwagon was off and running.
Considering its pedigree in making cheap, no-nonsense laptops, it’s taken Dell a long time to join the Eee clones. But finally the Mini 9 has arrived, with an impressive spec sheet and tempting price tag.
Built to last
First impressions? You won't mind chucking the Mini 9 about the house - it's every bit as chunky and solid as the Eee.
The black finish and silver Dell logo could see it passed off as an aspirational Vaio rather than a cheap-as-chips Inspiron, plus you’ll have no complaints about the connectivity – there are three USB sockets, a card reader, VGA out, Ethernet and headphone/mic sockets.
But the Mini 9's keyboard is a deal-breaker if you do any serious typing. It has one less row of keys than the Eee, resulting in the Function keys getting demoted to alt-presses and the rest of the keys squeezed into the remaining space. It's small, we understand that compromises have to be made – but some of the choices here are bizarre.
The full-stop key is only two-thirds normal size, which makes typing a pain for users of grammar and leaves us furious that the useless hash and ‘Alt GR’ symbols are given full-sized keys. Who presses hash and Alt GR that often?
The Enter key is only standard height instead of the more common double height, making it easy to miss, and the right-hand shift key is tiny, placed right next to the cursor arrow for maximum confusion. At least the comma is given the luxury of a square key, so typing isn't a complete disaster. But the Mini 9 is not a machine for writing novels on.
Still, you could point out that the whole idea of the Mini 9 is to satisfy your news junkie habit on the move, and the Mini 9 certainly does web browsing well.
It wakes up quickly when you open the case, connecting to your network in a flash and going from standby to Facebook login in under ten seconds. The 1024x600 resolution screen is bright and sharp, plus we managed well over two hours of Wi-Fi web use off one charge.
It also has a nippy boot speed, going from off to usable in around 30 seconds thanks to its solid-state hard drive, which comes with nine of its 16GB empty and ready for filling.
The Mini 9 chugs a bit when asked to multitask, though, with even the lightning-fast Google Chrome locking up for a few seconds now and again when you have a number of tabs open. It's disappointing that a brand new laptop aimed at the web browsing market struggles to perform its primary task.
Much of this is because the Mini 9 comes stuffed with bloatware. McAfee, Google Desktop, something called ArcSoft Connect, RealTek HD Audio Manager, a Bluetooth thing and the Dell Video Chat webcam manager are all mostly useless but load themselves at start-up and drain precious resources from the Mini 9’s humble Intel Atom.
Bin most of that lot and switch off some of the fancier animations and shadowing effects that XP offers, and you'll notice a marked increase in speed.
Intel's Atom may not be the most powerful brain on the market, but it sure delivers on the low-power, low-heat front. The Mini 9 runs cold, and deadly silent. Even on mains power there's no fan noise and the bottom of the unit gets only a tiny bit warm. And that's probably just it absorbing your body heat.
Overall the Mini 9 is a well-built and pretty machine that’s hampered by a clunky keyboard layout and a struggling Intel Atom. It needs a bit more power and a keyboard rethink before it can take on the netbook elite.